‘Tsunami of Silicosis’: Calls For Inquiry To Cover Every Worker In Dust-Prone Sectors

Increases in larger civil construction “mega-projects” could lead to the problem of workplace dust illnesses growing as well, according to the Australian Workers’ Union.

The warning came as the AWU calls on the NSW Government to widen the scope of reviews and recommendations to its Dust Diseases Scheme to include every worker in all dust-prone sectors including tunnelling, quarrying, cement work, mining and construction.

In a submission to the NSW Legislative Council Review Standing Committee on Law and Justice, the AWU says Australia is facing an epidemic of deadly silicosis, partly due to the growth in popularity of artificial stone products (also known as “engineered stone”).

The joint submission, made on behalf of AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton and AWU NSW Secretary Tony Callinan, mirrors the union’s earlier involvement with the National Dust Diseases Taskforce last year.

A statement by the AWU said the taskforce’s final report accepted the AWU’s evidence that risks associated with silica dust are not confined to the engineered-stone sector, and recommended systemic change to improve protection for all people working in all dust-generating industries.

Silicosis – dubbed the new asbestosis – is a fatal, but preventable, lung disease caused by exposure to high levels of silica dust.

The AWU says that while crystalline silica levels in manufactured stone are typically 93 per cent or higher, silica levels in sandstone range from 70 to 100 per cent, cement and mortar from 25 to 70 per cent, granite typically 30 per cent, and slate from 20 to 40 per cent.

“The incidence of silicosis in industries outside the engineered stone bench-top industry has extraordinarily bad potential, as there are approximately 600,000 Australian workers currently exposed to silica dust,” Mr Walton says.

“Stone masons – the sole target of this inquiry – make up 4400, or less than one per cent, of that total.

“Workers exposed to silica dust in tunnelling, quarrying, cement work, mining, construction, and other industries must be given equal consideration for the purpose of this review and any subsequent recommendations.”

The AWU says that with the projected increase in larger civil construction “mega-projects”, the problem of workplace dust illnesses will only increase.

“We will see a tsunami of silicosis in the coming years and decades if swift preventative, regulatory and compensatory measures are not quickly adopted by governments to protect workers exposed to silica dust,” Mr Walton says.

The NSW submission says there needs to be a stronger regulatory framework that captures workers in all industries, and suitable workers’ compensation laws that provide ongoing financial support and compensation.

The AWU wants NSW regulations to provide protections for all workers involved in high-risk silica work, based on the Victorian model, which developed regulations that define high-risk silica work, and require clear and concise standards for those running the business or undertaking to meet in order for work to begin, and for work to cease if risk assessments and hazard statements are not complied with.

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